With its bitter saw-toothed leaves, gangly stalk, spiky yellow head and relentless root (mountainsides! sidewalk cracks!), the dandelion has suffered its fair share of bad press. But like punk couture, this scrappy underdog of the plant world is about to blow up.
Thanks to a series of Canadian bans on cosmetic pesticides, dandelions are triumphing over the putting-green front yard. Foragers and foodies here are tentatively embracing this weed following the lead of Europeans who tease a poetry from its bitter greens by pairing them with bacon or goat’s cheese. Even ordinary Canadians have started considering it in salads—a trend bolstered by The New York Times’ revelation that the dandelion has 40 times the antioxidants of iceberg lettuce. Fashion is not far behind. Miu Miu, ever the pioneer of jolie laide, introduced dandelion-embroidered patterns into crepe dresses for fall 2011; Valentino, Paul Smith and Carolina Herrera followed suit. Even Katy Perry partied this summer in a dandelion-print Thakoon dress from fall 2013. The trend seeded quickly out to interior design—linens, upholstery, wallpaper—along with Tumblr (search #burning dandelions) and even a line of makeup.
But the rebranded flower isn’t just a pretty face. At this very moment, the cancer-fighting potential of dandelion extract is being tested in Windsor by Dr. Siyaram Pandey and researchers at the Windsor Regional Cancer Centre. Extracts from the root can selectively target cancer cells and “remind” them to commit suicide—and unlike similar drugs, it’s totally non-toxic. If clinical trials go well, this will be the first substance in Canada that makes the leap from home remedy to prescription drug. Already the department of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph is interested in growing better cancer-fighting dandelions; big pharma can’t be far behind.
My own relationship with this tough beauty is complex. It started a few years ago when I tried to make a cream of dandelion soup for a Victorian recipe–themed dinner party on my first night living in L.A. I harvested the dandelions from a hillside somewhere between Dawson City, Yukon, and Echo Park, and made a soup best described as bitter. It was also milky and sickly green, and it failed to impress my new friends. Back in Canada after mixed results with boiling, sautéing and even adding to omelettes, I found that the dandelion is in its purest form when eaten raw. I was loving the zing of even the heartiest backyard weeds. My partner, Heidi, hated the bitterness. So these days I do my foraging at my local rarefied supermarket aisle, where dandelions are sold in milder form (sometimes a chickory cheat—a related species), and make a salad that’s fancy enough to fulfill the new haute food fanatic requirements. Maple syrup, blood oranges and warm roasted hazelnuts help even out the weedy bite with a sophisticated hint of salty-sweet.
But I’m still chewing the leaves in my backyard, convinced it’s the bitterness itself that is the source of some of that cell cleansing Dr. Pandey’s research hints at.
The trick to making salads is to taste a bit as you go and keep the colours, shapes and textures interesting. The trick to making dandelion salad is to counter the bitter and tough. The timid might want to mix dandelion leaves with a butter lettuce.
Cut dandelions into 3-cm strips or whatever shape you like. If your batch is particularly bitter, soak the cut leaves in very salty, very cold water for at least 15 minutes. Dry with paper towel or spinner. Toast hazelnuts with a bit of butter, fancy salt and a touch of maple syrup in a pan, watching heat. Chop yellow peppers and green apples into very thin slices. Pluck just the yellow part of the dandelion flower, discarding anything green or white. Grate a beet as fine as you can. Toss dandelion, apples, yellow pepper, wood sorrel (this grows almost everywhere, looks like clover and has a delicate, lemony flavour) and blackberries (optional) with a Squeeze of lemon, a squeeze of blood orange and a teaspoon of hazelnut or walnut oil in a wooden bowl. Top with grated beet (and mint) and dandelion flowers. Salt and pepper to Taste.